Monthly Archives: June 2011

Cakes and Ale

Cakes and Ale is the fourth Somerset Maugham novel I’ve read, and with each book I keep changing my opinion of him. I really liked Of Human Bondage, which was my first book, and then I listened to The Painted Veil, which I loved. So far so good; I thought at this point that I should eventually read everything he wrote. Then I got to The Razor’s Edge, which I didn’t like at all. It felt dull and ponderous. I like idea-driven novels, but in that one, I didn’t care about the ideas and didn’t like how they were presented. With Cakes and Ale, I’m beginning to think Maugham may not be quite as good as I thought. There were interesting aspects of the novel and enjoyable moments — particularly the discussions of authors and writing — but I was hoping to love it and I didn’t.

The novel tells the story of the Driffields — Edward Driffield, a famous author, and two Mrs. Driffields, his first wife, Rosie, and his second, Amy. (My edition has a preface by Maugham that says Edward Driffield is most emphatically not Thomas Hardy, in spite of what anybody says, which meant that I spent the entire novel thinking of him as Thomas Hardy, of course.) It’s narrated by William Ashenden, a writer himself who knew Edward and Rosie at various points in his life. There’s another writer involved as well, Alroy Kear, who is planning on writing a biography of Edward, who in the present tense of the novel has passed away. Alroy approaches the narrator in an effort to gather information about Edward’s life, which sends him off on long reminiscences of his time with the Driffields.

The difference between what the narrator remembers about the Driffields, what he chooses to tell Alroy, and what Alroy will actually put in the biography is the novel’s source of tension. The Driffields — Edward and Rosie — were…not quite proper. The narrator first meets the couple when they move into Blackstable, his hometown. Edward’s father was a bailiff and Rosie had worked as a bar maid, which was a big part of the problem, but they also never quite followed the rules as they were supposed to, and everyone knew it. Eventually Edward’s fame as a writer comes to make up for his social deficiencies, but Rosie was always a bit of a scandal.

The novel is really Rosie’s story in many ways, in part because of the narrator’s fascination with her and her bohemian ways that stayed with him all his life. But there’s also the problem of what to do about the troublesome, sexually-suspect first wife after she is gone and the second wife is trying to establish her husband’s reputation as a respectable, important writer. How should that first wife be portrayed in the biography, and what to do about episodes such as the time the Driffields skipped town with debts and servants left unpaid? And what about Rosie’s sexual history?

It’s all a question of class, of course, about how Alroy and Amy Driffield try to transform Edward from his working-class roots into a solid bourgeois, respectable writer and how the narrator questions and resists them. It’s also about writers and writing. Alroy Kear is the object of much scorn from the narrator; not only is he going to whitewash Edward’s past in what is sure to be a bland biography, but his writing, at least according to the narrator, sounds blandly boring as well:

I could think of no one among my contemporaries who had achieved so considerable a position on so little talent. This, like the wise man’s daily dose of Bemax, might have gone into a heaped-up tablespoon. He was perfectly aware of it, and it must have seemed to him sometimes little short of a miracle that he had been able with it to compose already some thirty books. I cannot but think that he saw the white light of revelation when first he read that Thomas Carlyle is an after-dinner speech had stated that genius was an infinite capacity for taking pains. He pondered the saying. If that was all, he must have told himself, he could be a genius like the rest; and when the excited reviewer of a lady’s paper, writing a notice of one of his works, used the word … he must have sighed with the satisfaction of one who after long hours of toil has completed a cross-word puzzle.

There is no room in Alroy Kear’s world for the exoticism that someone like Rosie Driffield can offer, and so the narrator scorns him.

I was disappointed in part by Rosie as a character; the back cover of my edition promises that she is Maugham’s “greatest heroine,” but she never quite came to life for me. It was the moment when the narrator tells us what she wasn’t a big talker that did it: I had pictured her as vivacious and voluble, and when I tried to picture her being quiet, I couldn’t do it. Then I began to doubt that I had really understood her at all. I’m also not entirely sure I like the narrator. There are times his mildly ironic tone is amusing and I can’t help but agree with his dismissal of Alroy Kear, but there’s something off-putting about the voice, something distancing. I suppose the mildly ironic tone gets a little wearying after a while. I don’t think that we are meant to read the narrator uncritically; as a writer himself, he is not exactly a disinterested observer of the fates of Driffield and Kear, and his detached, judgmental attitude toward his subjects seems self-serving. But critiquing the narrator in this way wasn’t enough to make the book a satisfying read.

I read this book for the Slaves of Golconda and am jumping over to join the discussion right now. Please feel free to join in!


Filed under Books, Fiction

The Daughter of Time

My mystery book group met this past weekend to discuss Josephine Tey’s mystery The Daughter of Time. In a way, I’d like to write simply that while it’s not a historical novel, it’s all about Richard III, that you have to be prepared for some serious history, and that it’s really good and I liked it a lot, and leave it at that. Because that it wasn’t historical fiction but was all about Richard III is all I knew about it when I picked the book up, and I’m glad I didn’t know more. So if you’re interested in reading this book, you might stop here.

I was glad not to know more because I was delighted to discover the structure of the novel: the fact that it takes place solely in a hospital room and that nothing happens action-wise except people coming and going, bringing books and having conversations about them. What an unusual structure for a mystery novel, and how cleverly done! I love that the mystery is entirely historical, about the question of whether Richard killed the two princes in the Tower and if he didn’t, then who did. (As a side note, I was in the Tower just a few weeks ago, and now I wish I’d read this book beforehand. They had an exhibit about the question of Richard’s guilt, and you could vote on who you think the murderer was. Alas, I can’t remember who the other options were.) I love that the mystery is solved solely through historical research and logical deduction. Although there’s a lot of intuition involved as well, as the whole mystery gets going when Tey’s detective, Grant, decides that Richard does not look like a murderer. He has this feeling, based on his years working with criminals, that Richard isn’t one.

I also loved how the mystery branches out from the question of who killed those princes to questions of history and history writing. As much as the characters research historical events, they also think a lot about how we learn history, what we remember and don’t remember from our history classes in school, the various ways history gets written, and why historical untruths get perpetuated. Tey is great at covering a whole lot of ground answering these questions without making it seem formulaic or contrived. Grant and his fellow researcher, Carradine, get a hold of history textbooks, historical fiction, scholarly tomes, and contemporary accounts and documents, and they survey various types of people on what they remember and what they believe about history, all without awkwardness in the narrative. And it turns out that history is shockingly unreliable. People believe things they’ve heard from authorities they no longer remember, and often those “authorities” turn out to be biased or lazy researchers or too busy looking at the larger picture to get the details right. And once people believe a certain thing, they resent finding out otherwise. Rather than accepting correction and being grateful for the truth, they get angry at the person bringing the news.

The book’s epigraph is “Truth is the daughter of time.” Wikipedia just told me that the full sentence is “Truth is the daughter of time, not of authority,” from Francis Bacon. That explains the title — the idea that time will eventually lead to truth and will win out over so-called authorities — but I wonder how much the book really backs up that idea. Grant and Carradine are on a quest for truth, and at least within the frame of the book they find it, and yet theirs seems a lonely crusade in a world that seems determined to cling to falsehood. Carradine has decided by the end to write a book against “tonypandy,” their term for received versions of events that turn out to be false, but who can really win against common opinion that’s been passed down for generations? I’m not quite sure if this book is undermining the idea that time will bring us closer to truth, or, more simply, celebrating Grant and Carradine as savvier, smarter seekers of truth than most other people. What it certainly does do is celebrate the joy of research and discovery. Rarely in a novel is scholarly research shown in such detail and made to seem so much fun.

Grant is very suspicious of the way history gets written as narrative. He wants facts, concrete bits of information gleaned from primary sources, not the stories woven around those facts — or woven around no facts at all, which is often the case. But we can’t do without narrative — without turning history into a story. All Grant is doing is creating a counter-narrative to the one historians and textbooks have been telling all along. And that is what Tey is doing as well, of course, making the argument that by delving into facts and turning those facts into a narrative, the detective and the novelist — neither of whom are “authorities” — can reveal something true. Whether we believe it or not is another matter.

The opinions in my book group were generally positive, although not everyone liked Grant’s rather arrogant manner. The question arose of whether this book works well the second time around, and I’m wondering as well if I would like it as much if I were to read it again. Once you understand the premise and the trajectory of the book, it might not be as much fun to wade through all the historical details, which do take quite a lot of wading through. Anybody out there who has read this multiple times have opinions?

This is the second Tey mystery I’ve read, and both have done such interesting things with the genre that I’d like to read more. This one has practically no action directly described, and Miss Pym Disposes only turns into a mystery in the last 1/4 of the book and is as interested in psychology as an academic discipline as The Daughter of Time is interested in history. I’m looking forward to seeing what other unusual things Tey has done with the mystery genre.


Filed under Books, Fiction

I’m radioactive!

Seriously. I took a radioactive iodine pill earlier this week, and for the last three days, I’ve been in quarantine. Or at least I was supposed to keep three feet away from other people, especially pregnant women and babies. I’m okay to be around now, though.

It’s been a strange experience. You may or may not remember that four years ago, I developed a thyroid problem — hyperthyroidism. I’ve lived with it pretty easily since then, feeling perfectly normal because of my anti-thyroid medication, although I’ve had to get blood work done once a month. But, eventually, it makes sense to get rid of the thyroid entirely instead of taking anti-thyroid medication with its rare but dangerous side effects. Taking thyroid hormone replacement is much safer and easier to regulate.

So, my choices were surgery or radioactive iodine, and although the iodine treatment is not perfect, it’s much better than surgery, or at least I thought so. The thyroid is the only organ that absorbs iodine, the radioactivity kills it, and that’s that. I prefer to keep knives away from my throat if at all possible, so radioactivity it had to be. The treatment itself is very easy: all you have to do is take a pill, although I needed a thyroid scan first, and I had to sign a bunch of documents, which I think mainly said that I understand what I’m doing involves radiation, I’m fully aware of what I’m doing, etc. But the treatment itself was anticlimactic — the doctor simply handed me a plastic cup with a normal-size pill and a cup of water, and that was it. He was careful to make sure I didn’t touch the pill with my fingers, though, which was … well, strange, since why would I want to put such a thing in my mouth? But I just thought about avoiding knives at my throat and swallowed the pill.

Afterward the doctor gave me a card that says, “This patient has received an Isotope for diagnostic imaging or therapy. The amount received is not considered hazardous, however may trigger a sensitive radiation detector.” Cool! Apparently, people sometimes get pulled over when police officers detect radiation, especially at high security sites like bridges and tunnels. And airports, of course; it’s definitely best not to try to fly after one of these treatments. I haven’t gotten pulled over for being a radiation threat, but I’m still hoping it will happen.

The next couple days were anticlimactic, though: I felt nothing. I sat around thinking “my thyroid’s dying right now,” but I couldn’t feel anything as it slowly absorbed the radioactive iodine. I’m not really sure what’s going on now, and I’m curious: is it all dead? partly dead? Shriveling up? Disintegrating? The treatment takes several weeks to take effect, and it can go on happening for months afterward, which is the main downside to this form of treatment. Surgery involves knives, but on the other hand, its effects are immediate. So I’m waiting. I’m slightly hyperthyroid at the moment, which happens because the treatment takes so long to kick in. Eventually, in a few weeks most likely, the process will be finished, and I’ll switch over to hypothyroidism and start my supplements. I’m just hoping we catch the switch-over quickly, so I don’t feel too much fatigue and whatever else might be involved.

My feelings about this are mixed: I’m grateful that there’s a treatment for me, very grateful that modern medicine has allowed me to live a normal life, instead of feeling weak and shaky all the time, which is what hyperthyroidism is like. But it’s also very strange to deliberately kill off an organ of mine, and I don’t like the idea of depending on hormone supplements for the rest of my life. Even though my thyroid has messed me up, I’m kind of sorry to see it go. It tried its best, after all, and since all this is caused by an autoimmune disease, my thyroid is actually a victim — a victim of the rest of my body. A victim of civil war, I guess. I’m looking forward to the end of hostilities.


Filed under Life

Contemporary Fiction

At the end of my last post I complained a little about being bored by contemporary fiction, and specifically realistic fiction, and a number of people said that they sometimes feel the same way. Lilian asked if I would be willing to explain what I meant. So, uh, maybe? I’m not entirely sure what I meant, except that I wanted to express a vague feeling of discontentment and to explain why I didn’t fall in love with The White Woman on the Green Bicycle, a book that others have fallen in love with and is probably worth falling in love with.

I certainly don’t feel bored by all contemporary fiction; looking over my list of books from the last year or so, I see that I loved Arthur Phillips The Tragedy of Arthur, Teju Cole’s Open City, Nicholson Baker’s The Anthologist, Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad, and Joshua Ferris Then We Came to the End. I also liked Scarlett Thomas’s PopCo, although I thought it broke all kinds of fictional rules. I liked it because it broke fictional rules. And that’s what I liked about all these books, I see now. The Phillips book is a novel that pretends to be a play and a memoir; Open City is basically a guy walking around cities and thinking stuff; Baker’s novel has only a little bit of a story and lots and lots of meditations on poetry; Egan’s book is really linked stories with a lengthy chapter written using PowerPoint (and using it very well); Ferris’s book is in the second person (and focused unusually closely on the workplace); and PopCo spends a lot of time explaining how encryption works. That book explains everything.

And I loved all that. I think the perfect contemporary novel is one that breaks the rules in some way while still being fun. It’s possible to break the rules to such an extent that the book is boring or too difficult to enjoy, but the ones above do it perfectly.

Where I run into a problem is when books are more conventional in their plot lines and writing style. It’s not that I dislike all these books, necessarily, just that I don’t often get excited about them. Part of the issue is that I don’t read for story. There are exceptions, such as Sarah Waters, but mostly I don’t care about the plot. I don’t really read for beautiful sentences either, unless we’re talking about an extreme case — unless you’re Proust, for example. Mostly I read for that sense of excitement that comes when I fall a little in love with a character or a voice or the way a book explores an idea or does something new. I’m a little suspicious of sincerity, which is odd because I’m a serious and sincere person, but in my books, I prefer lightness and humor. Do what you do with energy and gusto, and I’ll be impressed.

That’s not always true, of course. I loved Olive Kitteridge, for example, which has hardly any lightness, humor, or gusto. But I guess there I liked the linked story form and the unremitting darkness of that book struck me as brave. I like brave books.

I keep talking about contemporary novels because my feelings about older novels are different. Conventional plot lines bother me less there. Seriousness and sincerity are fine in those books. I don’t look for experimentation in quite in the same way. But you can see why Tristram Shandy is a favorite of mine.

So, there, that’s my explanation of how I feel about contemporary fiction. Anybody else want to try to define their aesthetic? It’s a fun thing to think about.


Filed under Books, Reading

The White Woman on the Green Bicycle

I read this book (courtesy of NetGalleys) while in London and on the way home, so it was a while ago now, and it’s high time I say something about it. It tells the story of a couple, Sabine and George Harwood, who move from England to Trinidad in order to advance George’s career. They don’t know it at the time, but they are on the last ship to bring British colonials into the country (Sabine is French, but has married an Englishman). Shortly after they arrive, change begins to happen: Trinidad eventually gains its independence under their charismatic although ultimately disappointing leader, Eric Williams, and the white colonists will lose their status and power.

The novel has an interesting structure: for the first third or so, it takes place in 2006 and portrays an elderly George and Sabine, describing how their marriage has evolved, how their children have turned out, and what their lives have become. After this section, we move back in time to read about their arrival in Trinidad in 1956, and we follow them in later sections through the 1960s and 70s. This backwards structure works well to show how George and Sabine end up where they do: we see the results of their lives in Trinidad first, and then we look back to the causes. So we read about their unhappiness — their overwhelming feeling of listlessness and pointlessness, their estrangement from their children, their isolation, their sense that it could have been completely different — and then we turn to their younger selves and read about the series of decisions that led to their remaining in Trinidad even when nearly all other British families left. They never intended to stay longer than a couple years, or at least that’s what Sabine believed. She was always eager to go, but George fell in love with the place and resisted a move. Eventually, they become part of the island and could no longer fit in back in England if they were to return.

The novel tells the story of their marriage, and also of the political and social changes happening in Trinidad, and the two stories come together in the figure of Eric Williams, the first Prime Minister. In the 2006 section, George finds a collection of letters Sabine has written to Williams — tons of letters, describing her life, her marriage, and her feelings about Williams’s administration. These letters bewilder George — why did she write him so much? Did she know him? It turns out that she met him a few times and they had a couple conversations, but mostly the relationship was carried on in her head. Writing the letters was her way of making sense of the changes happening in her life and in the country, and also of getting a little bit of revenge on George, who was unfaithful to her. Williams is one of the book’s main symbols: a symbol of hope at first, of possibility, and then of disappointment and disillusionment. He becomes a way for Sabine to focus and express her hopes and then her anger.

The other main symbol is the green bicycle of the title: the bicycle Sabine used to ride to explore the city and meet her husband after his day’s work. This was a highly unconventional thing to do, although Sabine didn’t know this at first; she thought she was just enjoying herself and being free-spirited, when she was getting a reputation that stuck with her for being different from all the other British women. As Sabine loses her youthful energy and happiness, the bicycle appears less and less until it is abandoned.

Roffey does a very good capturing the complexity of the situation and telling the two stories — the personal one and the political one — so that while they are connected, they are not conflated or collapsed into each other. The Harwood marriage is powerfully affected by the political context, but it’s not simply a way of making a political point, and the political context takes on a life on its own and is not merely a device with which to tell the story of a marriage. And Roffey also describes the landscape of Trinidad beautifully. In fact, both George and Sabine personify that landscape and talk to it so that it becomes a kind of character in its own right.

Roffey does so much well here, and I enjoyed the book, but I didn’t have that feeling of excitement about it that I always hope for. I didn’t fall in love with it, and it’s hard to pinpoint why. I think I’m feeling some boredom with contemporary fiction — not all of it, but with more straightforwardly realistic contemporary novels. I suppose that while Roffey’s use of language is accomplished, it didn’t bowl me over in the way I want. But there is much to praise in this book, still, and it kept me good company while I was traveling.


Filed under Books, Fiction

Reading Updates

I mentioned visiting a bunch of bookstores in London, and I spent a good bit of time in the two bookstores in Dingle, so I’d better tell you what I bought:

  • Chet Raymo’s Climbing Brandon: Science and Faith on Ireland’s Holy Mountain. Hobgoblin has already read this one, and he told me it’s good. Mt. Brandon is on the Dingle Peninsula, and I climbed it while we were there. We had a gorgeous view of the summit and surrounding area until about 3/4 of the way to the top, when the fog moved in and we could no longer see anything. Still, it was a great experience. We went up the back side of the mountain, and on the way down the front side, the most commonly-climbed side, we saw crosses through the mist at regularly paced intervals to mark the path religious pilgrims take. This book tells the story of how it became a religious site. I picked it up in the shop specializing in all things Irish.
  • At Dingle’s other shop, I bought Hermione Lee’s Body Parts: Essays on Life-writing. I already have the American version of this book, called Virginia Woolf’s Nose, but that one is a lot shorter than the British version, with many fewer essays. I liked the parts of Lee’s book I’ve read already, so I was glad to find the rest.
  • The rest of the books come from London. Since I never find books by Jenny Diski in American stores, I brought home three of them, including her new one, What I Don’t Know About Animals. This is one of those books that I wouldn’t be interested in at all if knew only the title, but with Diski writing it, I’ll read it happily.
  • Also, A View From the Bed and Other Observations, a collection of essays. I already read a few of them about moving to Cambridge that I thought were great.
  • And one Diski novel, Apology for the Woman Writing, about Marie de Gournay, friend of Montaigne.
  • Norma Clarke’s The Rise and Fall of the Woman of Letters, about eighteenth-century women writers and their changing fortunes throughout the century.
  • Travel Writing, by Carl Thompson, kind of an overview of the history of travel writing and current critical debates about it. This will be useful for my class on literature and the journey this fall.
  • Lila Azam Zanganeh’s The Enchanter: Nabokov and Happiness. I just heard an interview with Zanganeh on the radio yesterday, and it was great. This is a personal meditation on Nabokov and his writing.
  • Daisy Hay’s Young Romantics: The Tangled Lives of English Poetry’s Greatest Generation. It’s about Byron and the Shelleys and other people in their circle. It will make a good addition to my collection of Romantic biographies, and it’s particularly appealing as a group biography.
  • Monica Dickens’s Mariana. This was my selection from the Persephone shop. The only thing that kept me from buying more was fear that my suitcase would be too heavy.
  • The Letters of Dorothy Wordsworth: A Selection. I’ve been reading this one slowly since the plane trip home. It’s fun to learn about her life and to get her perspective on what her brother William and his friends were up to.

I’m not sure I’ll be able to write detailed posts on what I read while I was traveling, but in case you’re curious, I started out with Edith Wharton’s Custom of the Country (read on my Nook), which was great. I loved returning to her; she is such a great chronicler of social ambition. Then I read the second Mary Russell novel, which I liked quite a lot, after not particularly liking the first one. A Monstrous Regiment of Women was much more focused and coherent than her first, and I liked the London setting. The Mary Russell put me in the mood to read a Dorothy Sayers, so I read Clouds of Witness, also on my Nook. Dorothy Sayers is so much fun! I suspect my favorite will remain Gaudy Night, but I liked this one a lot too.

At the same time, I was reading Geoff Dyer’s collection of essays Otherwise Known As the Human Condition (the first book I bought for my Nook), which was fabulous. This is one it would be worth writing more about, but in case I don’t, I was surprised at how much I loved the essays on photography with which the book begins. I know very little about photography, so these essays taught me a lot, and Dyer’s voice is so fabulously entertaining. His essays on literature were good, but I was less taken with those, perhaps because the subject matter was more familiar. The book ends with personal essays, almost all of which I loved.

I didn’t read much while we were in London, but I started Monique Roffey’s White Woman on the Green Bicycle, and I finished it on the plane home. That one I do want to write a full post on, so more on that later.

Since I’ve been home, I’ve had a little trouble concentrating on reading, but I did finish up the Dyer collection and read Willa Cather’s novel The Professor’s House. Perhaps more on that later. Just today I started Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time for my mystery book group meeting next week, and I’m still reading the Dorothy Wordsworth letters now and then.

And I think that catches you up on my bookish news. Have a great weekend everyone!


Filed under Books, Lists

On to London

The short trip from Dingle, Ireland, to London was a little disorienting. On the way to Shannon airport, we chatted with our bus driver the entire 2.5 hours or so it took to get there; he, like everyone we met in Dingle, was incredibly welcoming and enthusiastic about American visitors, and we had a great time talking about our experiences in Ireland, and his experiences in New York City (he said the best thing ever is to be an actual Irish person in NYC on St. Patrick’s Day. You are an instant celebrity, and he had never felt so popular. No wonder he loves the U.S.).

London was absolutely wonderful, but it felt odd that no one wanted to talk to us anymore, and we would walk into pubs to find people ignoring us. All the sudden, we had to figure everything out on our own and didn’t have a guide to tell us the best places to go. And the temperatures there got above 60 degrees! We adjusted quickly, and spent the next five days seeing as many sites as we could fit in. I had never been to London before, and it had been many years since Hobgoblin visited, so we set out to see all the major tourist sites. First up on Monday was the tower, and here’s a picture of Tower bridge:

From there, we climbed the Great Fire Monument, and toured St. Paul’s Cathedral (climbing to the top there as well — I climbed SO many stairs that day!). Over the next few days, we walked by Parliament, Big Ben, and Buckingham Palace, walked through St. James Park, and toured Westminster Abbey (spending a lot of time in Poet’s Corner). Tuesday night we saw Much Ado About Nothing in the Globe Theater. It was a great production — very funny with lots of good energy from the actors and audience. I had to laugh at the people in front of us as we left the theater complaining about how long the play was and how Shakespeare can go on and on and could have benefited from speeding things up. A response to be proud of, right?

Let’s see — we also saw the National Gallery — or parts of it, rather, since neither of us has a whole lot of endurance for museums. We tend to take 1-1 1/2 hours, see the sections that most interest us and call it a day. I couldn’t help but feel that each museum we saw we could have spent several days in. We also saw the British Museum (parts), a highlight of which was the Elgin marbles, and the London Museum, a great place to learn about the history of the city. At the end of our trip, we spent some time in the Victoria and Albert museum, although by that time, I’d had enough of reading museum displays, and just walked around looking at all the pretty things (of which they have tons — I loved the jewelry section in particular).

What else? We walked around Bloomsbury:

and saw Samuel Johnson’s house, as well as taking a guided tour called “Dr. Johnson’s Fleet Street,” where we saw some of Johnson’s haunts.

Somewhere in there we visited the Charles Dickens house, the Sherlock Holmes museum (cheesy, but fun), and the Carlyle house, which was a favorite, not least for the … odd … but very enthusiastic guides who showed us around the place. Here’s a picture of the tiny garden in the back:

We also visited a ton of bookshops, including Slightly Foxed, which wasn’t too far from our hotel and which we stopped by three times, although once for only 10 minutes before closing time. Also, the Persephone bookshop, and the London Review bookshop. We walked past 84 Charing Cross Road, which I knew had turned into a Pizza Hut, but what I didn’t know was that there are a bunch of bookstores elsewhere on Charing Cross, so we went to Blackwell’s and Foyle’s, as well as several shops with antiquarian and used books. And, of course, we went to Waterstone’s; I’m not even sure how many of them. I came home with 11 books, but I’ll tell you about those later.

By Friday, our fifth full day there, we were getting quite tired, so we started to slow our pace a bit, and we spent time just sitting in Hyde Park. On Saturday, it was time to go to Oxford to see Becky. After a tour of the city and some of the colleges:

Becky understood exactly what we needed, which was a chance to sit. So, we got some lunch and sat, found a pretty place along one of the rivers and sat, sat for a couple hours over tea, sat in a pub, sat over dinner. It was perfect and a great way to catch up on all our news.

Sunday was our last full day in London, and we spent it quietly, visiting some of our favorite bookshops and eating, and Monday we came home.

I’m satisfied what we did while there: there is obviously tons more to see in London, but I saw enough that if I don’t make it back for a while, I won’t mind too much. In addition to all the museums, churches, etc., we walked through a lot of neighborhoods, and I was happy to get a sense, even if it’s limited, of various parts of the city and how they all fit together.

And now it’s time to get back to books — hopefully I’ll be back soon to write about what I’ve been reading.


Filed under Life

Hello, World!

So Hobgoblin and I are home again; in fact, we’ve been home for five days or so, time which I have spent settling back in and trying to feel normal again. Coming home from travel is always hard for me (for most people?), and jet lag does not help. But I’m beginning to feel more like myself, and it’s high time I say something about my trip here.

But how to write about three weeks of travel without being uselessly vague? I admire Emily’s regular posts on her trip to France, but I didn’t have the energy or the reliable wireless to do something similar. So, the vague statements first: we had a wonderful time. Things will inevitably go wrong on any trip of that length, and it’s impossible to walk around in a state of bliss the entire time, but I think this trip was about as good as it’s possible to get.

The thing that I loved about being in Ireland was that we were in one place for two weeks and had time to settle in and get to know the place well. As I described in my last post, because we settled into the community a bit and had people to guide us around, we got to see things and interact with local people in a way most tourists don’t. One of the highlights of our time was going on field trips to beautiful places along the coast and to see historical and archeological sites, each one led by local guides who are experts on local history, archeology, theology, and culture. These trips were part of the classes the students took, but I was invited on all of them. This is a picture from a trip to Brandon Bay:

Here is a shot of part of a beach walk we did at Smerwick Harbor:

Me on a windy hillwalk to see a lookout tour built to watch for Napoleon (who never arrived, of course). It was a very, very windy day, as most days were during our trip:

One of the archeological sites, Teampall Mancháin or the Temple Geal Oratory:

The view partway up Mt. Brandon, the second highest mountain in Ireland, which we climbed, and which left me sore for a couple days. It was a gorgeous hike, but by the time we got to the top, the clouds had moved in and we didn’t have a view.

We saw a lot of sheep, all looking just as content as this one does:

And then there was Killarney National Park and Ross Castle:

I don’t happen to have a great picture of the town, but it was cute and colorful with lots of shops, restaurants, and pubs. It has two small bookstores, one a very good general-interest store, and the other a tiny but excellent shop that specializes in books on Ireland, in both English and Irish. The town is small, with maybe three main streets full of businesses, but it had enough variety to keep us occupied, and we didn’t have time to visit all the places we wanted to.

I don’t know how Hobgoblin had the energy to teach a class as well as do all the touring around we did; I spent the class time reading, walking, napping, and exploring town, and it was great to have some quiet. We had a pint with the other instructors every afternoon and dinner with the students at a different restaurant every night. Our lodgings were excellent: a two-bedroom apartment right in the middle of town (paid for by Hobgoblin’s university, which was totally awesome), so it was just a few steps to the school, the grocery store, etc. We took only two bike rides, largely because the weather was so difficult, but those two rides were memorable — one for the rain, and the other for the wind. But were beautiful, though.

You can see why I didn’t want to come home?

I think that’s enough for now; perhaps I’ll come back to write about London in a day or two.


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